UNIVERSITY PARK — An emotional Joe Paterno told his players Wednesday morning that he would only coach through the end of the season.
It turned out to not even be that long.
Paterno’s players were stunned to hear the news late Wednesday that their head coach had been fired by the university’s board of trustees three games shy of completing his 46th season at Penn State.
“This isn’t even right,” offensive lineman Quinn Barham tweeted.
“It’s messed up they are doing this to a man who is a big reason Penn State is what it is today,” wide receiver Derek Moye tweeted.
“A man who dedicated his whole life to a university and this is how they repay him,” tweeted defensive end Jack Crawford.
“This is a day that will never be forgotten,” linebacker Nate Stupar tweeted.
Earlier Wednesday, the current Nittany Lions and those Paterno has coached throughout his 46-year career reflected on what Paterno meant to them even as they tried to come to grips with the stunning allegations of sexual abuse against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky that hastened Paterno’s departure.
Shortly after releasing a statement announcing his retirement “effective at the end of the season” this morning, Paterno called a squad meeting and assembled his players and staff at the Lasch Building. A tearful Paterno spoke for a few minutes and then received a standing ovation from his players, who then met with their position coaches — including wide receivers coach Mike McQueary, who was a key witness in the grand jury’s investigation of Sandusky.
The players reacted “how anyone would react to losing a legend, not just in the sporting world but one who gave so much to Penn State University,” right tackle Chima Okoli said. “It’s definitely a big loss.”
Paterno explained some of the rationale what he thought, at the time, was his decision to end his career to his players.
“He thinks that that would be best for Penn State, best for his family and best for anybody else,” safety and co-captain Drew Astorino said. “He doesn’t want to put Penn State through a fight.”
The 12th-ranked Nittany Lions (8-1, 5-0 Big Ten), who host Nebraska at noon Saturday in Beaver Stadium, are doing their best to hold a regular week of practice as reporters swarm the campus.
“We’ll be fine,” Okoli said. “Quite frankly, you guys in the media and even people in the sporting world have been doubting us all season. This is going to galvanize us to come together as we’ve been doing the past couple of weeks.”
If anything, the Nittany Lions are using football as their escape from the tumult around them.
“It’s almost a relief to put on the pads,” Astorino said. “We’re not dealing with face-book, Twitter, ESPN, we’re just out there with each other. It’s a relief to get out there on the practice field with your best friends and do something that you love to do.”
The Nittany Lions won’t lack motivation when they meet the Cornhuskers, players said.
“You want to win every game but a lot of people forget that this is Senior Day,” said Okoli, one of 16 seniors on the team. “This is definitely a personal game. You always want to win your last game in front of Beaver Stadium fans.”
There will likely be dozens of former players watching the Nittany Lions along the sideline Saturday. Former wide receiver Rich Mauti reached out to approximately 800 former players by email this week, urging them to come out in support of the current team.
“They didn’t sign up for this,” said Mauti, who has had two sons play for Paterno, including current linebacker Mike Mauti. “They did nothing wrong.”
Some former players, including quarterback Daryll Clark, couldn’t bring themselves to talk about Paterno’s resignation Wednesday. Those that did, to a man, wanted it to be made clear that they had Jerry Sandusky’s alleged victims at the front of their thoughts.
“I want to emphasize that this is about the victims of this horrifying event,” Mauti said. “I don’t want to ever lose sight of how horrific this is and has been.
“The football program is going to survive. These kids are just devastated potentially for life and that’s really the issue.”
The football program will move on without Paterno, who has been with the program since 1950 and has been its head coach since February of 1966. Stunned though they were by the news of his pending departure, his former players recollected on what Paterno meant to them and to the program on Wednesday.
“He helped me when I wasn’t an all-pro, an All- America player,” former linebacker Jack Ham said. “He gave me an opportunity. ... I’m deeply indebted to Joe Paterno.”
Paterno’s players knew the 84-year-old wouldn’t coach forever but none of them ever imagined an exit under this sort of circumstances.
“As a former player, it’s tough to see your coach go out on terms that apparently aren’t his own,” former safety Lee Rubin said. “But I completely understand why this decision had to be made.”
Rubin, now a motivational speaker, said he chose Penn State “because of the reputation, because of the ideals and values that it stood for. You want to play for a person who represents those values and does things the right way. For as much as I played there, I thought (Paterno) represented those values well.”
Paterno spent the rest of Wednesday preparing his team for its next game, as he usually does. But his remarks to his players earlier in the day suggested that he doesn’t know how many more times he’ll be able to address them.
“He always wants us to remember that this will always be a team and always be together,” Astorino said. “Not just for the next few games but for the rest of our lives.”
How the Nittany Lions handle the off-field distraction will be closely watched for the rest of the week and the rest of the season.
“I think the team is a pretty special group,” said Mauti, who talks frequently with his son. “They’re tight. I think, in my view, this will bond them even closer. They’re upset, like everyone. They’re adults, know what’s going on, but they’re doing what great teams do — pulling themselves together, doing what they need to do to fulfill their obligation.”